Is There a Digital Generation?

They’re behind a pay wall, but I just wanted to mention two engaging Chronicle of Higher Education articles on the so-called digital generation.  Mark Bauerlein, author of the provocative book, The Dumbest Generation, offers a scathing critique of the over-reliance on digital technologies as teaching tools.  While I think that Bauerlein’s account of a “digital generation” underestimates differences within current college-age students, some of his larger arguments about why we need to reconsider current educational practices are well worth addressing.

In the same CHE issue, Siva Vaidhyanathan counters the generational myth, pointing out that not all students are equally “wired,” pointing out that “the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly within every class. Yet it has not changed in the aggregate in more than 10 years.”  I’ve had the opportunity to teach in a variety of university settings, and this observation strikes me as basically right.  More to the point, generational arguments obscure the different ways that students use digital technologies (text messaging, playing games, downloading music, making videos).  Siva goes on to compare Bauerlein’s Generation to an earlier anti-media jeremiad, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which Postman argued that TV would scramble our thought patterns.  In that regard, I would agree that Bauerlein ascribes too much power to digital technologies in shaping practice.


  1. McChris Said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    I thought I would chime in here and agree that the gamut of technological literacy among youth is far broader than most of these “digital generation” pieces suggest. I used to teach a lower-division “digital media” class that consisted primarily of web production and animation, and, while, there would be some privileged students who clearly had a high level of familiarity with computer applications and Web publishing, there was a substantial number of students who had an acute degree of computer illiteracy. Our operational definition of computer literacy for that class was knowing how to right-click to bring up a context menu – if students didn’t know how to do that, there was no way they were going to be able to navigate the menus on Photoshop. It’s clear to me that there are vast differences in the degree of computer experience among undergrads, and it pretty much breaks out on class/income lines.

    That said, I doubt there is more than a statistical handful of undergrads who don’t use mobile phones for text messaging and other non-voice services and the majority of undergrads use social-networking services like Facebook. Just because they use them doesn’t mean they use them with any kind of sophistication. Considering the desire of service providers to data-mine any useful data online and the threat of less legitimate privacy leaks, it seems more imperative for students to understand how data networks and services operate than say the production and distribution practices of TV networks.

    I’m not up on the state of “computer literacy” work, but it seemed like computer literacy was largely operationalized as the skills needed for employment (using a Web site or a computer application.) Now it seems as if there needs to be a complementary notion of “network literacy” that encourages students to understand how they fit into macrosocial information flows and the potential consequences of their networked behavior.

  2. G Said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    The problem with critiques like Baurlein’s is that they depend upon a willful ignorance of the history of reading, as Matt Kirschenbaum has persuasively argued to the deaf ears of such critics. First, the ideal readers — those who are easily immersed in the slow reading of a printed text — evoked in such critiques have never existed in large numbers. Second, “reading” as an activity has meant very different things in different times and in different places. To pick one mode of reading out of many and say, “This is what ideal reading is” without offering up any sort of rationale or awareness of historical context seems intellectually dishonest.

  3. G Said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    One addition to the above comment: “in very large numbers” should probably be amended to “as a very large percentage of the literate population, much less the population as a whole.”

  4. Siva Vaidhyanathan Said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

    Hi. Thanks for the nice words about my article. The followup comments are particularly interesting and helpful.

    Here is a free and open link to the article:

  5. Chuck Said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

    Siva: Thanks for the link to the free version of the article. I wish I’d had a little more time to craft a more focused response, but deadlines were (and are) looming. I found your comparison of Bauerlein to Postman particularly helpful for my purposes, and hopefully I can develop that point further down the road.

    G: Yes, Matt’s been addressing these topics for a while, and I agree that we need to question arguments that reify one mode of reading as ideal.

    McChris: I like the idea of “network literacy.” I tried to do something like that in one of my freshman composition classes last fall, but because I didn’t quite know where I was going with it, I don’t think it worked.

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